BHUVAN SHOME (Dir. Mrinal Sen, 1969, India) – ‘Big Bad Bureaucrat Reformed by Rustic Belle’

bhuvan shome

I’ve only really started to look at Bhuvan Shome so here are some tentative thoughts about the film, which I hope to return to at a later date.

Bhuvan Shome is often cited as having initiated the New Indian Cinema movement. Released in 1969, along with Sara Akash and Uski Roti, as a triptych, the films were aided by loans from the FFC, a state institution set up in 1960 by Nehru. In its early years the FFC tended to back already established or successful filmmakers such as Satyajit Ray who was central to attempts to cultivate a high brow cultural identity of state-led film patronage. With Nehru’s passing in 1964 and Indira Gandhi’s rise to power, the FFC underwent some significant changes including the installation of a new chairman B.K. Karanjia, Arun Kaul and Mrinal Sen’s New Cinema decree and finally the FFC’s decision to support low budget, offbeat films. Legend has it that Indira Gandhi approved the loan for Bhuvan Shome, setting in motion Parallel Cinema. Bhuvan Shome is a film that is more important in terms of where it is placed in Indian film history, as a cultural, historical artefact, and less substantial as a piece of cinema. It may still be Mrinal Sen’s most successful commercial project and is often talked about with great affection by those critics and audiences who have championed Parallel Cinema. 1968 is a crossroads for the New Left movement and although I would argue Apanjan, directed by Tapan Sinha, exploring the impact of the Naxalite movement, predates Bhuvan Shome, acting as a precursor to the beginnings of Parallel Cinema, Sen’s film shares the privilege of marking the official start of the movement.

If we look at 1969 considerately, two other films are of relevance here; Yash Chopra’s Iteffaq and Satyajit Ray’s Days and Nights in the Forest. The discourse and canonization of Parallel Cinema gravitates to the triptych but I would argue it is a lot more complicated than the linear historiography that is often presented about this critical moment in Indian film history. It clearly is a moment that needs to revised and reclaimed in a much wider international context that saw Indian cinema conversing ideologically and stylistically with New Cinemas in both Europe and Latin America. Perhaps I am pushing it a little by acknowledging Ittefaq, clearly a product of the Hindi film industry, but still it is a cursory failure that briefly pointed to a compromised experimentation with film form by an emerging populist director. As for, Days and Nights in the Forest, this is a Ray film, which I have often said is overlooked, but since it was not directly part of the FFC project, Ray’s film can be situated in a modernist framework in which the triptych also falls into. On hindsight, it is Uski Roti, which is identifiable as a true break in terms of formalism, not Bhuvan Shome or Sara Akash, although the latter do use obvious self-reflexive devices. Yet as we all know Uski Roti was never released in cinemas, nor were many of Kaul’s early films. What makes Bhuvan Shome instructive in trying to historicise Parallel Cinema is not only the wider cinematic debates it triggered particularly from Satyajit Ray, a seemingly less antagonistic continuation of the very public conversation that ensued between Ray and Sen on the politics of Akash Kusum, but that it carried with it a new form of state patronage, one that had moved on from Nehru’s modernist ideals to something slightly more unconventional but not avant-garde. In many ways, this was Indira continuing to determine film policy, something that she had been involved since the late 1950s.

Vinay Lal describes Bhuvan Shome as an ‘expressionist exploration of the politics of class’, which amounts to a political reading of a film that is often labelled as a light comedy, offbeat and expressly apolitical in some respects. Lal bring up the equation of class which is critical and Bhuvan Shome does undeniably have a comical undertone. In many respects, it would be perhaps less objectionable to label Bhuvan Shome as a melodrama about class. The story follows Mr. Shome, a bureaucratic senior officer in the Indian Railway, who embarks on a duck hunting expedition in Gujarat, only to meet a spirited village belle, Gauri. Sen takes a loosely episodic approach to the narrative, focusing largely on the comical, gentle interactions between Shome and Gauri. It is Shome’s class snobbery that comes undone as Gauri exposes him for the buffoon he is, and steadily making him realise that going native, adopting the ways of the local, points to an affirmative class interaction. Gauri humanises Shome and disentangles the officious penchants, sending him back to the city and the office as a man transformed by her charms. But how should we read the story of the state bureaucrat and the ‘rustic belle’? What does it reveal about Indira Gandhi’s attitudes of the time, towards film and culture? Or perhaps there is a danger here of over determination, of trying to find a correlation between the politics of the film and the cultural, ideological politics of the day? The Naxalite movement was at its peak when Bhuvan Shome was released, and the unrest in Calcutta was about to be memorialized in both Ray and Sen’s work. At the start of Bhuvan Shome, Sen acknowledges the Naxalite movement, inserting actuality into the montage of Bengal with footage of protest, unrest. This might be the only historicising that takes place in the film but it certainly signposts the alternate politicised space Sen was about to take up in the next phase of his career, films which have been questioned for their supposed radicalism.

Like much of Parallel Cinema, not much attention has been given to the films themselves, and their is a dearth of textual analysis especially in terms of exploring film form, aesthetics and representational issues. Much has been written, although superficially, about Bhuvan Shome’s significance to Parallel Cinema yet little discourse exists about the construction of the film itself. In fact, amongst the triptych it is Sara Akash that asks to be re-inserted fully into the genesis of Parallel Cinema’s historiography, mainly because, of the three filmmakers, Basu Chatterjee was the one who moved most sharply to take up a centre ground, becoming part of Middle Cinema. In that shift and for supposedly selling out, Chatterjee’s career is the one which has become most prone to attack.

For further reading on Bhuvan Shome see Megan Carrigy’s chapter on the film in The Cinema of India (ed.) (2009) by Lalitha Gopalan, London: Wallflower Press.

For Vinay Lal on Mrinal Sen see: https://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/southasia/Culture/Cinema/Mrinal.html

 

THE THRESHOLD (Dir. Pushan Kripalani, 2015, India)

1Pushan Kripalani’s superbly acted two-hander Chekhovian chamber piece resonates expressively with the barest of cinematic narrations; a married couple in their sixties have reached a crossroads that results in Rinku (Neena Gupta) telling her husband Raj (Rajit Kapoor) that she is leaving him. Kripalani attentively details the regrets and hostilities laid bare in the candid exchanges between husband and wife, conjuring an unpleasant tone of acrimony. Since this is a two-hander a lot of the emotional resonance rests on the shoulders of the two actors, Rajit Kapoor and Neena Gupta, who together, unveil a nakedness in their vivid interactions, often making us recognise a truth in their micro gestures, blurring the line between fictional constructions and real, personal histories. Kapoor and Gupta are a tour de force. One can sense an intimacy here between the actors borne out of a close improvisatory collaboration between the actors and director. As Raj begins to realise that Rinku has made up her mind and will inevitably leave him, their punitive exchanges dig up past memories that in the case of Rinku catalogue historic tales of neglect, pain, isolation and a life unfulfilled.

While the story never becomes about who has suffered the most, never choosing to present the victim in the relationship as solely Rinku, Kripalani is concerned much more with the impossible task of trying to capture the way people fail to communicate the essence of their frustrations, forlornly reduced to an interminable state of mental torment. Such anxieties are compounded by various societal and cultural determinants surfacing angrily in Raj’s chauvinistic mentality. Rinku’s longing to experience what it is to be ‘free’ and her resentment of Raj’s altruistic whims also points to an unbearable compromise, which they have learned to live with over the years, a lie made up of many others. Yet Raj needs Rinku for companionship because he sees the loneliness that old age inflicts. Their sadness is not tragic but resolutely melancholic realised visually in the placid imagery of the mountainous sceneries and more significantly the house, which Raj has built for Rinku, an immaterial expression of misguided affection that harbours a dreaded paralysis. What Kripalani captures so astutely is the site of separation, and the psychological crises it produces, inserting timely, underused fades to black to organise the separation as one made up of uninhibited interruptions. The Threshold is anchored by two exceptional performances; demonstrating mastery in magnifying the minutiae of martial malcontent.

The distribution-exhibition picture for Indian independent cinema in the UK is a miserable one, beset by monopoly and ignorance, and while The Threshold is yet another dazzling Indian indie film that could easily succeed with art-house film audiences, a cinematic abyss has opened up in the UK that has effectively marginalised many notable Indian independent films of the last five years. Masaan, the most coveted Indian indie film of the year, was not released in UK cinemas, and this was a film that won acclaim and awards at the Cannes Film Festival. Since the traditional distribution-exhibition paradigm is perpetually broken and with the DVD market/industry in India effectively on its knees, a different, progressive model needs to be proposed and implemented if we are to see the greater circulation of so many of these films. Although the NFDC has spiritedly launched its own DVD label, there is a need for an independent home video label with a global reach that can work with Indian film producers at an early stage in helping to develop and procure a viable marketing strategy for independent Indian films to be distributed either digitally or on the DVD/Blu-ray format. The Threshold is certainly one of the best films of the year but I am increasingly concerned about Indian independent cinema in the UK not getting the recognition it deserves.

ISLAND CITY (Dir. Ruchika Oberoi, 2015, India)

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The worker as drone is a familiar enough image these days, ubiquitous with the way corporate companies suffocate the life out of its employees so that they can maximise profits. The worker drone, dispossessed of all pleasure, is drolly captured in Ruchika Oberoi’s portmanteau Island City.

The first story eponymously titled ‘The Fun Committee’ is a darkly comedic parable featuring a deadpan absurdist turn by Vinay Pathak, synthesizing Tati and Kaurismaki into a sardonic comment on the emptiness of office culture, shopping malls and consumerist hedonism. Oberoi even has a go at terrorism. In this first story Oberoi uncovers that most ideologies induce systemic structures imposing a rigour that inevitably cultivates fascistic practices in both the private and public sphere.

Ghost in the Machine, the second story, is the best of the three. A major theme linking the three stories is that of imprisonment; societal anxieties entomb all three characters, repressing desires. The second story is a melodrama about the middle class figure of the repressed housewife who is re-centred as an agent and catalyst for reconstituting the family along altruistic lines. Oberoi’s instructive skill with this second story is the way she parallels the misery and euphoria of the family with the fictional popular Indian soap ‘Purshottam: The Ideal Man’, a parochial, mythological paradigm. This complicated narrative address juxtaposes the fictional utopian constructions of masculinity with the painful realities of an oppressive vision of the despotic Indian husband. With the man of the real family in a coma, liberates the family, but leaves them with a final decision that Oberoi frames incongruently. The final episode is also sensitively observed, a bittersweet deconstruction of romance that narrates the story of an impoverished young girl searching for an idea of love, which cannot exist in such a hopeless lower class milieu.

The portmanteau form is well suited to tales about the city and this has become a popular narrative mode in Indian independent cinema, having spawned a cycle of films including Shor in the City, Dhobi Ghat, Peddlers to name a few. Island City signals an exciting new talent in the shape of director Ruchika Oberoi, a graduate of the Film and Television Institute of India, and this is a compelling first work. Performances by Vinay Pathak, Tannishtha Chatterjee and Amruta Subhash are notable.

QISSA: The Tale of a Lonely Ghost (Dir. Anup Singh, 2014, India) [Spoilers]

QISSA

The title of the film comes from the arabic word ‘Qissa’ which means folk tale. The Punjabi Qissa has a strong oral tradition and families from the Punjab can recite Qisse or tales that are both specific to genre and a family history. Anup Singh draws widely on such a cultural tradition, narrating a tragic family tale by mixing melodrama with a decisive supernatural accent that borrows iconographically from horror tropes. However, the folk-tale form is complicated by the direct references to the partition of India, mixing past and present histories. This is director Anup Singh’s first film after 12 years and he has described the struggle to finance Qissa in many interviews. Singh trained at the Institute of Film and Television at Pune and his teachers included Ritwik Ghatak, Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani. His first film Ekti Nadir Naam (The Name of a River, 2003), partly funded by the BFI and NFDC, is a tribute to Ritwik Ghatak. Qissa is the first film of the newly formed co-production treaty between Germany and India, and the cast and crew is an international one.

The story follows a lower middle class Sikh family who are displaced and sees them rebuild a new life in a new India after partition. Umber and his wife have three daughters and the birth of a fourth child, another girl, makes Umber, desperate to replicate ignoble traditions and prove his virility as a man, declare the child a boy. Gender confusion ensues with Kanwar. As she gets older, her gender identity is questioned internally, until one day they decide to marry Kanwar to Neeli, a feisty Sikh girl who has no idea what secrets and lies plague the family. Kanwar’s marriage creates a desperate crisis, enslaving Neeli to a terrible reality, leading to the sad destruction of the family. Although it becomes apparent that Umber is a self-destructive figure, his patriarchal anxieties consuming him, the real tragedy of this tale is Kanwar. In many ways, Singh uses Kanwar’s gender crisis as a wider metonym for the trauma of partition, suggesting the blurring of gender identities mirrors the crises of family and national identity families were forced to undertake as a result of partition. Nonetheless, the attempt to erase Kanwar’s femininity by her father and in effect the family who remain complicit in such oppression criticizes patriarchal culture in a post partition context.

Perhaps it is only as a ghost that borders become invisible. Umber Singh (Irfan Khan), an exile and victim of partition, is displaced from Pakistan to India, and reconciliation with such a cataclysmic disturbance never emerges and in fact never can. Umber, already a ghost of partition, is shot dead when he tries to rape his daughter in law. He is damned and doomed to live in a permanent state of exile, drifting as a form of punishment for his sins, haunting the memories of his daughter. In the living, Umber already is a patriarchal monster, but when he is killed, his transformation into a symbolic monster predicated on historical and patriarchal lines makes him altogether more potent. Umber’s inability to reconcile with his status as an exile and refugee of partition is one of the most unequivocal links to Ghatak’s work, a key influence on Singh as a filmmaker, since the trauma of partition affected Ghatak personally. Irfan Khan’s moving and complex portrayal of Umber Singh (a career defining role), a man burdened with the memories of partition, is equally matched by Tillotama Shome’s memorably anguished performance as Kanwar. Qissa is due for release later this year in India. The film has already had its UK premiere this year at the London Indian Film Festival. Given the strong buzz around the film and its continuing presence at film festivals Qissa has the potential to do well commercially.